Middle East update: June 3-4 2017


UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba
Hackers have apparently compromised the personal email account for Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the US, and leaked its contents to several media outlets including The Intercept and Huffington Post. There’s some serious stuff in this leak.

Otaiba, for those who don’t know, is one of the most active ambassadors in DC in terms of engaging with policymakers. He can be regularly be found speaking at think tank events, often at think tanks that have a chunk of UAE cash sitting in their coffers and usually advocating for hardline/militaristic policies toward political Islam (i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood), Iran, and Iranian allies like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. He’s earned a reputation for being “savvy,” which in Washington means he’s an important Arab who says things the foreign policy establishment likes to hear and has a lot of money to throw around (a lot; the UAE spends more on lobbying in the US than any other country). Almost by himself he’s become an Arab counterpart to the Israel lobby (which which he agrees on almost everything, though we’re not supposed to realize that).

The Intercept’s report on Otaiba’s emails focuses on his cozy relationship with one of those DC think tanks (though not one of the ones to which the UAE is known to have donated), the Foundation for Defense of Democracies:

On March 10 of this year, FDD CEO Mark Dubowitz authored an email to both the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al-Otaiba, and FDD Senior Counselor John Hannah — a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney — with the subject line “Target list of companies investing in Iran, UAE and Saudi Arabia.”

“Dear, Mr. Ambassador,” Dubowitz wrote. “The attached memorandum details companies listed by country which are doing business with Iran and also have business with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. This is a target list for putting these companies to a choice, as we have discussed.”

Dubowitz’s attached memorandum includes a lengthy list of “non-U.S. businesses with operations in Saudi Arabia or UAE that are looking to invest in Iran.”

At Huffington, the focus is on Otaiba’s efforts to lobby Washington against Qatar, with which the UAE has had a long-running rivalry over support for the Muslim Brotherhood, support for opposing sides in Libya, and approaches toward Iran:

In private correspondence, Otaiba ― an extremely powerful figure in Washington, D.C., who is reportedly in “in almost constant phone and email contact,” with Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s adviser and son-in-law ― is seen pushing for the U.S. to close down its military base in Qatar and otherwise poking at issues that could drive a wedge between the U.S. and that Arab nation. He also says that his country’s de facto ruler is supportive of a wave of anti-Qatar criticism in the U.S. that the Gulf state last month calleda smear campaign and that has prompted behind-the-scenes alarm inside the U.S. government.

The former story is more problematic for FDD and (hopefully) the whole DC think tank community, which badly needs to reckon with its role as covert lobbying outlets, but the latter is potentially a serious problem for the UAE. Whatever its differences with Qatar, if the UAE has been lobbying against Doha in DC that’s a potentially fatal blow to the Gulf Cooperation Council. Turkish media is even suggesting that the emails reveal a UAE role in last summer’s attempted coup, but having read that Daily Sabah story it seems pretty heavily influenced by the Turkish media’s ability to see conspiracies behind around much every corner. Still, if that’s what Ankara is reading in these emails, there’s another diplomatic problem for the Emiratis. And I suspect this weekend’s leaks were only the beginning.


Gauging the progress of the final Iraqi push in Mosul has been almost impossible, largely because if you ask three Iraqi officials how it’s going you’re likely to get five different answers:

Iraqi propaganda was again obfuscating the situation in west Mosul. First, each day the government releases a map of west Mosul showing the disposition of the opposing forces. Yesterday the Saha 1 neighborhood was freed. On the map, it had been colored in liberated for several days beforehand. Second, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) continued to give different figures on its progress in Zinjali. On June 2 two sources claimed 40% or 60% of the area was taken from the insurgents. June 3 the Federal Police said that 40-50% was cleared beforehand, and an additional 25% was liberated. Another source claimed that 85% of Zinjali was under government control. The commander of the Federal Police General Read Shakir Jawadat told the press that his forces were 800 meters into the neighborhood. Whatever the real percentage is reinforcements arrived to help with the fighting. The conflicting statements have been a trademark of official releases by the ISF. They must report progress every day to support the propaganda effort, and there is little coordination leading to different stories at any given time.

Somewhere between 40 percent and 85 percent, thanks for narrowing that down folks. Zanjali seems like it will be the next neighborhood declared liberated (its actual liberation will presumably come a few days after it’s been declared, which has been standard Iraqi procedure throughout this offensive), but there is also fighting in the Shifa neighborhood, and Iraqi units are trying to secure the Bab al-Sinjar entrance into the Old City.

This is all happening amid reports that “dozens,” and possibly hundreds, of civilians have been killed while attempting to flee the combat area. Many of these appear to have been directly targeted by ISIS, but it’s highly likely that at least some of them have been killed by Iraqi and coalition airstrikes and artillery. The Pentagon allowed over the weekend as to how it’s killed 484 civilians in airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since the anti-ISIS effort began, which of course means they’ve killed far more than that. Airwars puts the number around 3800, and given the Pentagon’s bias toward classifying casualties as “guilty until proven innocent,” that’s likely to be much closer to the truth. Baghdad is now investigating reports that its forces–or possibly coalition forces–used white phosphorus munitions in west Mosul on Saturday. White phosphorus is a chemical weapon, though it is still not classified as one, that severely burns anyone in its blast radius. It’s supposed to be used to illuminate a battlefield at night, but plenty of militaries use it for its more destructive capabilities. In east Mosul, meanwhile, there are reports of a series of “assassinations,” which could be garden variety crime but also could be a sign of some extrajudicial punishment being meted out to people suspected of ties to ISIS.

Outside of Mosul, the Popular Mobilization Units liberated the town of Baaj near the Syrian border on Sunday. This should given them a stable base from which to conduct their operation to clear ISIS out of the rest of the border area. The victory was announced by a PMU leader named Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who then, ah, announced that the PMU is going to keep going all the way to Riyadh, where they hope to link up with the Houthis from Yemen. Which all seems a bit…presumptuous? But maybe it’s just me.

The AP has an important report on Fallujah, which has been very slow to recover despite having been liberated almost a year ago. Basic services are still spotty, but some schools have been rebuilt and many residents have returned. The Iraqi government doesn’t have the budget to rebuild quickly and international aid has been typically stingy. The extent of the destruction in Fallujah makes it a pretty good template for predicting what’s going to happen in western Mosul, which has been thoroughly hammered, especially compared to eastern Mosul.

Finally, this Buzzfeed piece on the “Golden Division,” Iraq’s elite, US-assisted Counterterrorism Service (CTS), is worth your time if you appreciate warzone journalism. The CTS has been Iraq’s most effective fighting unit by far and appears not to be linked to the kind of major human rights abuses that have been alleged about other Iraqi units, like the interior ministry’s Rapid Reaction Division.


Another round of peace talks is scheduled for Astana on June 12-13.

There’s been heavy fighting in the southern city of Daraa this weekend, as rebels attacked government positions there on Sunday the government responded with airstrikes and artillery on Sunday. Daraa is supposed to be one of the “de-escalation zones” envisioned by Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the deal they reached last month, but the zones still haven’t been implemented and, frankly, haven’t really been talked about very much over the past couple of weeks. The rebels say their Saturday attack was prompted by the movement of government forces into a Daraa neighborhood in what looked like the buildup for a government attack, but who’s to say whether that’s accurate.

This weekend also saw fighting in Aleppo province, chiefly between government forces and ISIS. Bashar al-Assad’s forces were able to take a mountain range just east of the main highway connecting Aleppo to Damascus, securing their hold over that very important corridor. ISIS also abandoned the town of Maskaneh in eastern Aleppo province, enabling Assad’s forces to take that as well. This is believed to be the last town in Aleppo still under ISIS control.

Taking Maskaneh puts Assad’s forces on the border of Raqqa province, but I suspect they’re going to pause there rather than screw around with the Syrian Democratic Forces move on Raqqa. On Sunday the SDF captured the Baath Dam, just upstream on the Euphrates from Raqqa, and on Saturday a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG, the SDF’s main component, said that their attack on Raqqa was a matter of days away. Unlike in southern Syria, where Assad’s forces are approaching a serious conflict with US proxies, in Raqqa Assad has no reason to provoke anything. The SDF may be getting considerable American aid, and the YPG and Assad certainly don’t agree about the future of Syrian Kurdistan, but right now the SDF isn’t Assad’s enemy.


UNICEF says Yemen is now getting 3000-5000 new cholera cases per day. That’s a staggering total and it’s only going to increase as the total number of new cases rises. The UN agency is also warning that the outbreak is likely to spread to neighboring countries, which puts Saudi Arabia at risk from the cholera epidemic it caused. I’d call that justice, except that it won’t be the Saudi royals contracting this disease if and when it does spread. They might not even notice.


The state-run Anadolu news agency is reporting that Turkish security forces killed eight PKK militants in the eastern Turkish Kars province on Sunday.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel is heading to Turkey on Monday to see if he can at least get Turkish-German relations back to the point where Ankara will allow German officials to visit their forces stationed at Incirlik air base in support of the anti-ISIS coalition. If that doesn’t work out, Germany is likely to redeploy those forces somewhere else in the region.


Three gunmen from Syria attacked a Jordanian border position on Saturday, but they were killed by Jordanian forces.


Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met in Cairo on Sunday to try to find the love again. The Saudis are of course unhappy with Cairo over Egypt’s minimal support for the Yemen intervention, its disinterest in ousting Bashar al-Assad, and the fact that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir still haven’t been handed over to Riyadh. But they need Egypt if this whole “Arab NATO” counter-extremism/anti-Iran thing is going to get off the ground. It’s not clear whether they made any progress improving relations.

On Saturday, Shoukry met with Sudanese Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour, and it’s also not clear whether they made any progress. Egypt and Sudan are at odds on a range of issues, including a territorial dispute over the Halayeb Triangle and possible Egyptian support for rebels in Sudan, which Khartoum alleges and Cairo denies.


It must be a good weekend to hack Gulf bigshots. Somebody hacked the Twitter account of Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid b. Ahmad Al Khalifa on Saturday.

In far more consequential news, the Bahraini government shut down al-Wasat, the country’s only independent newspaper. The decision was made ostensibly over a column that insulted an unnamed Arab country (probably Morocco), but really this is all of a piece with the country’s systematic suppression of free speech.

UPDATE: Bahrain abruptly announced on Monday (time zones!) that it was cutting all ties with Qatar and giving Qatari nationals two weeks to leave the country. I assume I’ll have more about this tomorrow, but what the hell is going on in the Persian Gulf?


On Saturday, the Qatari government said that six of its soldiers were wounded along the Saudi-Yemen border in clashes with Yemeni rebels. The soldiers were serving in the Saudi-led coalition. I only note this insofar as the Qataris are once again being shunned by Riyadh even though their soldiers are fighting the Saudis’ war for them. Seems unfair.

UPDATE: OK, so that update under Bahrain only scratched the surface of a monumental development that’s only breaking right now (around 11:30 PM east coast time). Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt have all broken diplomatic relations and all contacts with Qatar as of Monday. The Saudis pulled all Qatari troops out of their Yemen coalition, after those six Qataris had gotten wounded over the weekend. Here’s what the Saudis, who naturally seem to be the ringleaders, are saying:

The official state news agency, citing an official source, said Saudi Arabia had decided to sever diplomatic and consular relations with Qatar “proceeding from the exercise of its sovereign right guaranteed by international law and the protection of national security from the dangers of terrorism and extremism”.

Saudi Arabia cut all land air and sea contacts with Qatar “and urges all brotherly countries and companies to do the same.”

Bahrain’s announcement has been the most detailed so far, saying that its diplomats will leave Qatar in the next 48 hours and Qatari diplomats should be out of Bahrain in the same timeframe, and ordering all Qatari nationals out of the country within two weeks. Probably the other countries’ official announcements will follow along those lines. The last time this sort of thing happened it was months before the Qatari-Saudi relationship got back to something approaching normal. This time it may require the Qataris shutting down Al Jazeera, which the Saudis and Emiratis both despise.

But to the best of my recollection, that previous episode didn’t include this whole “cutting all land sea and air contacts” thing, which is a new wrinkle that, among other things, may hit Qatar Airways pretty hard and could even impact food shipments into the country–though the Qataris have enough money that they ought to be able to keep everybody fed.

The official Saudi statement, which notes among other things Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its alleged support for the Houthis in Yemen, says that Riyadh’s troubles with Doha go back to 1995. That’s not a random date; it’s the year the former Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad b. Khalifa Al Thani, overthrew his father, Khalifa. The Saudis are identifying Qatar’s two most recent rulers as The Problem, and may be signaling other members of the Thani house that there’s a simple way to end this whole situation.

The Trump administration’s only comment so far has been from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who says the US would be happy to serve as a broker between the feuding parties and that he doesn’t expect this dispute to have “any significant impact” on counter-terrorism efforts. Considering that it was probably Trump, and Tillerson, swearing fealty to the House of Saud during their trip to Riyadh that gave the Saudis the confidence to take this step, you would like to see a bit more of a reaction out of the administration than “eh, you know how those Arabs can be.”

There may be more countries to come here, by the way. Kuwait might follow suit and Sudan is a strong possibility to do likewise. Obviously this is still developing.


According to The Intercept’s Lee Fang, the Saudis are cultivating the best relationship with the UK Conservative Party that money can buy:

Some of the the Saudi kingdom’s largesse came in the form of gifts. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who has come under fire for defending a mass execution in Saudi Arabia that included a nonviolent government critic, accepted a watch from the Saudi ambassador worth £1,950 ($2,514). Tory MP Charlotte Leslie, who has presided over parliamentary debate regarding foreign policy in the Middle East, received a food basket from the Saudi Embassy with an estimated value of £500 ($644).

The Saudi Arabian government has also picked up the tab for four expense-paid junkets taken by Tory lawmakers to visit the kingdom since the Yemen war began. The costs for accommodation, travel, and meals for the lawmakers range from £2,888 ($3,724) to £6,722 ($8,668). At least 18 conservative lawmakers have participated in the trips, according to the register of financial interests.

Tory Rehman Chishti, one of the participants in a Saudi junket last year, was also paid £2,000 ($2,579) per month as an adviser to the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, a state-backed think tank in Saudi Arabia. The arrangement began in February 2016.

The gift-giving appears to be part of an influence effort on both sides of the Atlantic. As the Intercept has reported, the Saudi Arabian government has rapidly expanded its lobbying presence in Washington, D.C., hiring consultants and public relations experts with close ties to President Donald Trump. Since 2015, the number of registered agents working for the Saudi Kingdom grew from 25 to 145 individuals.


Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had some harsh words for Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration in a speech delivered in Tehran on Sunday. And look, Khamenei is playing a political game and is himself a severely corrupt, oppressive, heinous human being, but as they say, even a stopped clock is right twice a day:

“The U.S. president stands alongside the leaders of a tribal and backward system and does the sword dance, but criticizes an Iranian election with 40 million votes,” the supreme leader said in a speech broadcast live on state TV.

“Even with a multi-billion dollar bribe to America, the Saudis cannot achieve their goals in the region,” he said.

Khamenei accused Washington of double standards, saying it turned a blind eye to the “killing of Yemeni people in mosques, streets and their homes,” while claiming to promote human rights around the world.

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